Religious Freedom Commissioner: Administration 'Sends a Message...That We Don’t Care’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 12, 2014 | 4:36 AM EST

Testifying before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, USCIRF Commissioner Elliott Abrams holds up a picture of Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been imprisoned in Iran since Sept. 2012. (Image: HFAC webcast)

( – Failure to give high priority to promoting religious freedom abroad “sends a message to other countries that we don’t care,” a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on “the worldwide persecution of Christians” was told that the Obama administration, like its predecessor, has not taken full advantage of the tools provided by 16-year-old legislation to support international religious freedom.

USCIRF commissioner Elliott Abrams noted in his testimony that the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom is once again vacant.

“If there is a long vacancy it weakens the attention of the executive branch, it weakens the efforts in the executive branch, and it sends a message to countries around the world of inattention and a lack of concern,” he said.

It took President Obama 513 days after taking office before he nominated someone to fill the vacant ambassador-at-large post. Suzan Johnson Cook, a prominent Baptist pastor from the Bronx, was eventually confirmed by the Senate in April 2011, and served for 30 months before resigning last October.

Obama pledged at the National Prayer Breakfast last week to nominate a successor soon.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chaired the hearing, expressed the hope he would do so.

“We had an administration where for two-and-a-half years there was an ambassador-at-large but for the rest of the administration’s tenure in office there has been no ambassador-at-large, and that is the point person,” he said. “So that’s a missed opportunity that is huge and I hope that [post] is filled soon.”

Both the ambassador-at-large position and the USCIRF were created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) – the former to head the administration’s efforts in promoting religious freedom abroad; the latter as an independent watchdog to advise the executive and legislative branches.

President Clinton appointed the first ambassador-at-large under IRFA in 1999. Former World Vision chief Robert Seiple served until 2001 when President Bush named John Hanford, a religious freedom advocate who as a congressional staffer played a key role in the IRFA’s drafting. Hanford served from 2002 until the end of Bush’s second term.

IRFA’s most important tool is the “country of particular concern” (CPC) designation for governments that perpetrate or condone religious persecution. CPCs may face sanctions or other measures designed to encourage improvements.

Currently eight countries are designated CPCs (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan) but administrations have overruled repeated USCIRF recommendations to add others.

Smith asked Abrams about the administration’s pushback against some of the commission’s CPC recommendations, and also about steps being taken against those countries that are designated. He observed that some of the sanctions prescribed by IRFA are “very significant, and would definitely get the attention of an offending country.”

“The system’s not working, it’s not working properly,” Abrams replied, adding that this was the case both under the current and previous administrations. “It’s not working in the way it was established in the Act.”

The Obama administration made CPC designations only once in its first term, whereas IRFA requires annual designation, Abrams said.

“The problem is in part that it sends a message to other governments that we don’t care.”

On the question of sanctions for CPC offenders, “all too often there are no sanctions, or there is a double-hatting: you have a country that is under some other sanction, and so you say, ‘oh that’s for religious freedom too.’”

Abrams said the Act provides for flexibility – the administration could for example name and sanction individual foreign officials involved in religious persecution, and bar them from ever entering the United States.

“There’s lots of flexibility and I’m afraid we are not using it. And so the message that comes across is one of inattention. And, the CPC system, I would say, is broken.”

Recommendations followed, ignored

Tuesday’s hearings heard about the plight of Christians in a range of countries, mostly Islamic states as well as other repressive nations like communist China and Vietnam, and military-ruled Burma.

The Clinton administration in 1999 designated the first CPCs – Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Its successor then added North Korea in 2001, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea in 2004, and Uzbekistan in 2006.

But the Bush administration overruled annual USCIRF recommendations on CPC designation for Pakistan (every year since 2002) and Turkmenistan (since 2000). It delisted Vietnam in 2006 – against USCIRF advice – citing “significant improvement.”

After removing Iraq from the list in 2004 after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it declined to reinstate the designation at the commission’s advice in 2008, after the plight of Iraqi Christians worsened dramatically.

Continuing the trend of following some USCIRF advice but not others, the Obama administration has declined to designate countries including Pakistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Nigeria and – since the commission first recommended it in 2011 – Egypt.

Four of those countries, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Nigeria, are on the top ten recipients of U.S. foreign aid in fiscal year 2013, while Vietnam has enjoyed a significant improvement in diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S.

“Religious freedom and the importance of that around the world is something that we speak about, we communicate both publicly and privately about, all the time,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a press briefing Tuesday.

Asked about concerns expressed by hearing witnesses that religious freedom was dropping as a priority, she said, “I think you know we have people in the building dedicated to this issue every day. It’s one the secretary is personally committed to, and I think that speaks to our desire to continue to raise this issue whenever we can.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow